HP plans reign of ink from the cloud

The company wants to move consumer printing away from PCs and onto the web, shedding drivers along the way
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

HP has radical plans for the future of consumer printing, promising an end to printer drivers and the introduction of devices that just don't care what you're printing from — Windows, Linux, iPhone or your washing machine.

ZDNet UK talked to Antonio Rodriguez, the chief technology officer of HP's consumer-printing division, about the fundamental changes it wants to make to low-cost output.

First, what do you define as consumer? Increasingly, we're finding enterprises buying 'consumer' equipment.
That's an interesting dynamic. For me, it's a question of: who's buying it? If the people buying it use it, it's consumer. If it's being bought by people three stages away from the people who use it, it's enterprise.

What's the thinking behind what you're going to do?
Twenty-five years ago when the inkjet was invented, it looked fantastic compared to the quality of screens and nothing else could touch it. Now, lots of people have caught up with inkjet technology, and screens are a lot better. It's an incredible technical process squirting a billion droplets onto a sheet of A4, but it's commonplace.

There's a move to authoring and editing digital content, so we want to focus on ways to do that which keeps printing relevant. And we're excited that while people are used to thinking of printers in terms of feeds and speeds, they're forgetting that printers these days have networked computers built in. We're going to make a lot more use of that.

There's going to be a change in the way printers are named, too. Today, if you go to the store, there are more characters in the model number than there are letters in the alphabet. That's before you get into driver hell.

What does that mean in practice?
You'll take your printer home from the store and plug it into your network. It'll register with our servers over the internet and you can link that registration with your various accounts.

We have ways to make that easy. When you print, you print to our servers and those send the output to the printer. Or you'll be on a web service, tell it what and how to print.

It doesn't matter what you want to print from, it's a web service, so you can print from your computer, or your iPhone, or whatever. If you're printing from Google Docs, for example, it really doesn't matter what you're using to access the web service. It could easily be a post-PC device.

But you can print locally if you want?
You will be able to use it locally too: we support local discovery via Multicast DNS.

Are people going to be comfortable with this change to web-based printing?
The way that I see it, we have to deliver on a set of core printing experiences. People print as keepsakes, photos, collage, on-demand printing. They want to keep a memento. We know that's a base human need.

Where will it take place? Ten years ago, it was all desktop clients — Adobe, Office, etc. Now the data collecting is taking place on social networks. What we've done is gone to people like MySpace and said: "We will provide a set of web services that lets you expose more complex products", so users can select photographs and have them delivered as collages, or formatted as cubes you can cut out of the paper. Then there's utility printing — a map or a recipe is going to be...

...more useful on paper than on a laptop. And communication, printing out office documents for others to read.

We're looking at all three as digital workflows. That's going to be a critical part of the future of printing as we progress along rich digital veins.

Won't the dependence on web services lock people into your servers, or could I build a web service that's entirely independent of you?
The architecture we're designing, printing from the cloud, should let people deliver the services they want. Going wholly outside our system isn't possible right now. We have to make sure our device works out of the box, and for that to work it has to be seamless. We won't charge for these services, so there should be no reason for people to damage their ease of use by switching to a non HP-server.

We don't want to build an app store, as Apple has for the iPhone. We're going to build in a plug-in infrastructure that others can use.

And the same's true for inputting documents?
Yes, of course, so you can feed in documents to the cloud or services as well. There's lots you can do with that. If you think of our devices as all-in-ones — scanners as well as printers — then you can use them to inject analogue documents into the digital workflow.

How is this going to make you money?
Our business model is closest to that of Amazon's Kindle. They make a bit of money on the initial sale — money on the content, not on the connectivity. We want to delight our customers with what they get.

Printing has had an explosive growth in the past, so it has been fine leaving the users to decide what to do. The advantage to us to going in this new direction is that it is a differentiator that makes our printers more attractive.

Our services are better tied in to our output devices, like iTunes is to iPod, only we can work without a PC in a middle. No drivers, no software. We're entering the era of the driverless printer, and we want to be in the lead of that.

But you will have a very good idea of what people are printing when, every page and drop of ink...
We're getting involved with the privacy people to make sure we're OK there. We will know a lot about how the product is being used, the consumables, of course. In terms of security, we're going to have the right thing, full strong encryption from client to printer. We're lucky in that there are a lot of online storage services who've solved this already, so it's a known problem.

When will we see these new printers, and have you got a name for all this yet?
First fruits? End of the year, beginning of next. We have been experimenting online under the name CloudPrint, but we'll have to wait for the marketing people to come up with the real name.

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